Fixing the Behavior

but not the sin.

Romans 6:20–23 (NKJV)

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When Paul refers to our having been slaves of sin, it sounds like this “sin” is some kind of external task master—like the dark side of the force or something.

But that’s not it at all. Being a slave of sin is more like being a slave of greed or a slave of lust. We are controlled, but by something inside. It’s still full-blown slavery though, and understanding that is important to understanding the gospel.

Nowadays we talk casually about being a slave of some internal desire, but in Paul’s day this was a radical idea. Everyone knew what slavery was and what a slave-master was. People couldn’t imagine being slaves of themselves or of their personality traits.

Our casual chit-chat about being a slave of greed, or pride, or whatever, desensitizes us. When we speak of being a slave of our pride, we don’t really mean slavery. It’s just a colloquialism—like saying, “My brain exploded.” It isn’t meant to be literal. We think that if we really had to, we could master our sin.

But we can’t. Even if we overcome one specific behavior, we can’t master sin itself. With the right crutches, some behaviors can be mastered. For example, there’s a drug you can take that prevents you from drinking alcohol.

This fixes the behavior, but not the sin. An alcoholic who takes Antabuse is still a slave, just a sober one.

We can understand and believe this doctrine, but not really believe it. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like slavery. It feels like I can do almost anything I put my mind to and I can surely stop doing anything I put my mind to stopping.

And this feeling never goes away. It still feels like we can just walk off the plantation any time we want. We’re now free from slavery to sin, but that doesn’t mean it has lost all its power. The gates to the plantation are now open, but they’re more narrow than we realize. Overconfidence leads to grief.

We’re in denial, which isn’t surprising given what this is about. No one likes to admit to unpleasant things they wish weren’t true, and our bent toward sin is about as unpleasant as it gets.

This is the foundation of the gospel. Man is his own worst enemy, and helpless to do anything about it.

Thanks be to God for delivering me from this body of sin and death.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.